London Essays – Issue 5: Food


Young Londoners have taken to a product that has a long history in the capital.

By Kat Hanna and Jonny Kanagasooriam

It’s a hazy Saturday afternoon in May at the East London Liquor Company (ELLC) distillery in an old glue factory in Bow. We have lived in this area for nearly five years in a string of rental properties and we’ve seen a steady stream of coffee shops, bakeries, wine shops and restaurants spring up in the East End in response to the spending and consumption habits of our generation. (We are slap bang in the middle of the millennial age bracket, generally placed at 18–34.) A gin distillery is just the latest manifestation of the area’s gentrification.

We are advised to try Batch Number One: 100 per cent British wheat spirit infused with seven botanicals, including juniper and grapefruit, cardamom and Darjeeling tea. Two vast copper stills squat behind a predominantly gin-stocked barback wall, only a plate glass window separating us from the distillery’s inner workings. (For all its steampunk styling, ELLC sits randomly in what is essentially a small car park, backing onto a Thai restaurant, an events hall and a gym.)

The East London Liquor Company is one of several new gin bars and small batch distilleries in London; others include the London Gin Club, the City of London Distillery and Sipsmiths. The latter, originally based in Shepherd’s Bush, now located in Chiswick, was the first distillery licensed to distill in copper stills for almost 200 years and became the precursor to a number of others.

Small batch stills often have cutesy names: Sipsmith’s are Prudence, Patience and Constance; City of London’s copper stills, located just off Fleet Street, are called Jennifer and Clarissa, after the Two Fat Ladies of television cookery.

The renaissance of small batch distilling, which started in the US, has encouraged new entrants to the market; the small scale of production allows for experimentation and innovation, and all this has helped to make gin something of a phenomenon in London. In 2014, Leon Dalloway (@TheGinBoss on Twitter), started The Gin Journey, a business running evening gin tours of the capital. “At the start, I was doing one tour a week, typically of 20 people. We are now running six a week. Gin is a fantastic leveller,” he says, “neither too manly nor too feminine. Starting the business in London made good sense. The capital is full of people who want, not just to go out and drink, but to make an experience of it.”

London’s more established gin distilleries have responded to these incursions by becoming more open and consumer-friendly. Two years ago, Beefeater made a decision to open its doors in Kennington to the public. In the same year, Bombay Sapphire moved onto a five-acre campus designed by Thomas Heatherwick (tours are available) at Laverstoke Mill, a 300 year-old paper mill located on a site near Basingstoke, whose history, the website notes, dates back 1000 years – adding quite a lot of heritage to a brand whose faux-colonial existence began in 1987.

Mother’s ruin

The resurgence of small batch gin distilling in London builds on nostalgia for traditional manufacturing methods and the romance of a product inextricably linked to the city. London’s relationship with gin is as troublesome as it is long; as far back as the 1700s, workshops were converted into gin-houses where signs promised ‘dead drunk’ for the cost of two shillings and a drink came complete with clean straw to sleep off its effects. The ruinous consequences of the spirit were famously chronicled by William Hogarth in his 1751 painting Gin Lane, which depicted squalor and despair in St Giles’ parish, an area especially harshly affected by the so-called Gin Craze. The parish is now, incidentally, home to London’s largest gin bar, offering over 400 varieties of the spirit, ranging from £9 to £52 a drink.

Today, gin is less likely to be linked to ruination and more to the redemption of formerly poor areas – a process of gintrification, if you will. So adaptable is it that it moved rapidly from being the scourge of the working classes to becoming the drink of the empire, following product refinements and shifts in the way it was produced and distributed (removing the turpentine would have helped). The drink is now firmly a middle-class beverage. Today’s young professionals, unable to emulate previous generations by buying into the London property market, can at least buy the London lifestyle – drinking and dining out, opting for access rather than ownership. In 2012, the average Britain aged between 18–34 ate or drank out 32 times a month, almost twice as often as the 35–54 cohort.

Maker spaces

Gin has become a statement, part of the aesthetics of millennial consumption, along with other food and beverage products prized for their small-batch manufacturing processes, many of which promote themselves on the back of their use of locally-sourced ingredients and artisanal methods. Notable manufacturers in other fields include the E5 Bakehouse, making hand-crafted breads “baked daily at sunrise” with locally milled flour in Hackney; and Wildes Cheese, an artisan cheese-making company based in an industrial estate in Tottenham.

It remains to be seen whether the development of London’s food and drink towards artisan, small-scale production is a fad, or the beginning of something resilient and capable of further growth. It seems, at the moment, to be linked to three main trends. The first is the availability and affordability (at least until recently) of suitable space.

While the output of many of these newly-established food and drink manufacturers may be small, the square footage they require is not. In the early days, food entrepreneurs were able to find an abundance of former industrial units in which to forge their wares – and artists’ studios and cheap warehouse accommodation provided an eager young clientele.

The second key ingredient is the market of young professionals. The proportion of residents working in skilled occupations – a commonly used identifier for young professionals – has increased substantially in the past decade. In absolute terms, the number of people employed in skilled occupations doubled in Hackney and Tower Hamlets between 2004 and 2014. Similar trends can be seen in other inner London boroughs such as Islington and Lewisham.

Third, more young professionals are renting rather than owning. The result: a glut of consumers with hefty disposable incomes and not a mortgage payment in sight. Contemporary house prices mean that our generation has little option other than to spend our hard-earned cash on liquid assets. There is a sense of dizzying hedonism that comes from a defiant refusal to settle, to leave London altogether or move out to the perimeter. Shunning two-hour commutes and previous generations’ leisure activities – DIY on a Saturday – many of today’s young Londoners would rather put their money where their mouth is. Ours is a new kind of drunkenness.

Consumption habits are the new way in which young Londoners orientate themselves to the geography of the city. Moving frequently between boroughs, it is little wonder that young professionals are increasingly attracted by all that is local and authentic. We may not be as destitute as the 18th-century Londoners who sought their solace in the spirit but, as house prices continue to rise, a clean bed of straw for the price of a gin looks like an increasingly tempting offer.